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Tree of Turkic languagesKazakh is part of the Kipchak family of Turkic languages, its closest linguistic relatives within that family including Karakalpak and Nogay.

The first Kazakh linguist. Akhmet Baytursinuly, designed a language family tree almost 100 years ago, showing the origins and branching of the Turkic nations' tongues. Apart from the Turks, the Kyrgyz, Turkmen, Uzbek, Azeri, Tatar, Uygur, Bashkir and many other peoples belong to this group, and their various languages are strongly interrelated. A distinction of the Turkic languages that clearly sets them apart from the Indo-European language family is their grammar. All words are formed according to a specific system that consists of a mainly unchanging root to which large numbers of prefixes and suffixes are added.

It is hard to tell how many of the 10 million or so Kazakhs worldwide are masters of their mother tongue. Due to their Soviet past many Kazakhs, especially in the cities, speak Russian rather than Kazakh. Though Kazakh is the official state language, Russian is recognized as the lingua franca. Many Kazakh words have been borrowed from Russian, eg tramvay (tram) and svetofor (traffic light), and words from other languages have also been appropriated. Taxi, teatr, telefon, politika, kompas - many terms introduced in the 19th and 20th centuries have entered the Kazakh lexicon.

Kazakh was established in 1989 as the official language of Kazakhstan, a status confirmed under the 1993 Constitution. It has been written in several different alphabets. An Arabic script was traditionally used, although the Tsarist Russian authorities encouraged the use of a Cyrillic alphabet devised by the Kazakh educator Ibrai Altynsarin. This was not widely taken up, however. In the late 1920s the Soviet authorities switched to the use of a Latin-based alphabet, though this in turn was replaced in 1940 by a revised Cyrillic alphabet developed by Sarsen Amanzholov. A Latin script is however used to render Kazakh on some internet-based sources, and is also widely used informally by the Kazakh diaspora in Turkey and Western countries. The government of Kazakhstan did examine the case for moving officially from a Cyrillic- to Latin-based script, following the example of some other countries of the former Soviet Union, but President Nazarbayev decided that as it would cost US$300 million and take between ten and 12 years, it was not a priority.

Russian retains a formal status as the 'language of interethnic communication, and in many ways remains the lingua franca in Kazakhstan as it is spoken by 84% of Kazakhstanis. Kazakh is not widely spoken among the country's ethnic Russian and other Slavonic minorities, and the legacy of the Soviet Union, in which knowledge of the Russian language was an important requirement for career success, has meant that in urban areas in particular many ethnic Kazakhs who were educated in Russian-medium schools, do not have a good knowledge of Kazakh either. But the position of Kazakh is gradually strengthening. Hie in-migration of ethnic Kazakh oraltnans, many of whom do not speak Russian, and higher rates of out-migration of ethnic Russian and Slavonic groups, have altered the demographic picture since independence.

The government has introduced a number of measures to promote the Kazakh language, for example television and radio stations are required to provide at least 50% of their broadcasting in Kazakh; civil servants who are not ethnic Kazakhs receive a pay bonus if they are able to speak good Kazakh; and the Constitution provides that the president must be a fluent speaker of the language. There is a strong regional dimension to Kazakh- and Russian-language abilities. In the southern regions of South Kazakhstan and Kyzylorda in particular, the Kazakh language is clearly dominant, and you will hear little Russian spoken. In Petropavl in North Kazakhstan the reverse is true.

President Nazarbaev has urged citizens of Kazakhstan to master three languages: Kazakh, Russian and English. The emphasis placed by the government on encouragement of knowledge of English, as a global language, to bolster the economic competitiveness of Kazakhstan, is demonstrated by its focus on the teaching of English in schools and in the government-funded scholarships provided under its Bolashak programme for study at universities in the United States and United Kingdom. You will find some English spoken in hotels, restaurants and other establishments connected with tourism in the major cities, especially Almaty and Astana. You may however find it difficult to track down an English speaker in small towns or rural areas. Young Kazakhs are often keen to practise their English with foreign visitors.

The Kazakh tongue sounds strange to Western ears. Many consonants sound mute and guttural. This is due to the deep- throated pronunciation of consonants and a number of very short vowels. Most Western Europeans have trouble with pronunciation. However, you should practise a few expressions and have them ready as an icebreaker, since the joy and surprise of Kazakhs, whenever they hear their own language from the mouth of a foreign guest, is wonderful to see.